Why am I impressed that a son I raised is so honorable in his attitudes towards and relationships with women? I’m not overly impressed that my daughter is…. Am even I, staunch feminist, so inured to a world in which men disappoint me that when my own kid doesn’t, it’s like a big thing? Maybe. And I lied. I am impressed by my daughter’s fierce strength in the face of a world that casually belittles her on a daily basis, and her refusal to be marginalized as a woman or a lesbian, and the way she walks the walk. And as for my son, he walks the walk too. Am I impressed? Sure. But he’s not at all impressed with himself. He can’t imagine being any other way.
A few weeks ago he called me to talk. He told me that he was giving a lot of thought to what he would call his students, at the ski school where he teaches, and when he finishes his degree in outdoor education. “People have to stop saying ‘guys’ to groups of people that are half girls or women.” I caught myself being super impressed with him for thinking a simple thought I have pondered frequently. He was just thinking out loud – he said he’s thought about it before too, but now he realizes it’s important to take a stand on stuff like this when he’s dealing with kids, because basically, he doesn’t want to perpetuate the language of the patriarchy. So I tried to tamp down my maternal awe and just think, Yeah. Damned straight. (In case you’re wondering, he’s thinking about using “padawan” – the term used by Jedi masters in Star Wars to refer to an apprentice. Seems pretty perfect for a feminist millennial teacher….)
Women have a profound influence on the men of the world. On our husbands, boyfriends, friends, sons, even fathers. They say that men who have daughters are much more generous in their charitable giving. To mention one totally random statistic. Sons raised by interesting, independent women tend to respect women. Shocker. And so on.
But this influence is not automatic and should not be assumed or taken for granted. We only have an influence if we are allowed to by the culture in which we exist. There are exceptions, clearly. There are girls who exist under the thumb of and live steeped in the attitudes of the Taliban who grow up to fight back and claim their power and refuse to own the status quo. But most of the time, a community closed to diversity of thought will remain closed, and narrow, and people within it will be marginalized, subjugated, killed.
So a culture in which it is accepted that women are “less than” perpetuates the idea of women being “less than” until no one can imagine it being any other way. The myths and false beliefs are perpetuated—that men control women, that men are superior to them, that women do not have autonomy over their actions, bodies, choices, even lives—whether on a grand scale as when gangs of Egyptian men publicly rape women with little consequence, or on a quieter but also frightening scale as when fathers can “own” their daughters’ virginity (and thus sexuality), or when everyone seems cool with the fact that women just don’t make as much money as men. Or that a woman is too _____ (fill in the blank) to: govern, manage, be a CEO, be a rocket scientist, get an education, achieve much of anything, choose what to do with the unborn embryo in her uterus, drive, be a soldier, or decide when she does not want to have sex.
When everyone a child knows, meets, sees, and hears tells him or her, directly or indirectly, that women (or blacks, or gays, or “Arabs,” or the transgendered, etc. etc.) are “other” and “less than” – what do we expect?
When everyone in the room laughs at the dumb blonde joke, what’s a child to think? When no one ever stands up for mom when her husband/brother/father tells her to “Go get me a beer,” are we surprised when her son, at 21, does the same? Or that her daughter meekly responds when she is thus commanded?
My son has not had that many girlfriends. He is fairly picky. I mean, he doesn’t even like the term ‘girlfriend’ – he thinks labels are limiting. (RIGHT?) But anyway, they have all been wonderful. Smart, savvy, independent, quirky, warm women. He has zero tolerance for women who throw themselves at him (he plays guitar in a band so this actually does happen), who devalue themselves, who act the way they think men want them to act – helpless, cute, dumb, fragile. He knows better.
He grew up among women – aunts, friends of the family, me, cousins, his sister, teachers, mentors. He knows who women are. He came from his own version of an insular world, in which it would never occur to anyone that a woman should make 30% less than a man for doing the same job, be the brunt of jokes, or be openly insulted as “ugly,” “fat,” “useless,” “dumb,” or “bitchy.” He is the child who, at age 3, asked who the women presidents were. I’ll never forget the look on his face when I said there were none. Pure confusion.
Last night we talked about Scott Esk, running for state rep in Oklahoma—the guy who would be okay with a law calling for stoning gays. My son said to me, “We all think we’re right. The people who traffic in hate and think stoning gays or raping women is the way to go – they think they’re right. And we think we are.”
But we are right, aren’t we? I mean, as my daughter said once so simply, “How can fairness and love be wrong?” But the point remains. My children are tremendously privileged to have grown up in a world, however small, where hate and fear of difference are not norms, and where women kick all kinds of ass being awesome, and where the women and most of the men talk about women’s issues (and all civil rights issues) as if they mattered… because they do. Meanwhile, children all over this country and the world are disadvantaged. Girls grow up without enough role models – women who are privileged to be able to claim their power without dire consequences to their spirits, their bodies, or their lives. Boys grow up without role models – men who treat women as equals and respect them. Openly. As if to respect women is something that has to come out of the closet.